Scholars of smut

The first world pornography conference erupted in a carnival of porn stars, devoted wankers and earnest academics, but where was the scholarly debate?

Published October 5, 1998 8:13AM (EDT)

"Um, these next two performers want to say something, especially to all you researchers out there." Annie Sprinkle, self-proclaimed post-porn modernist, was announcing the final performances at the kickoff party for the World Pornography Conference. "Pornography can lead to hard drugs like marriage and children! And between the two of them, they have a lot of years of marriage and a lot of children!"

Held over four days at the Universal Sheraton in Universal City, and co-sponsored by the Center for Sex Research at Cal State Northridge and the Free Speech Coalition (the trade association of the Adult Video Coalition, and a special-interest lobby that advocates against stricter government regulations on the adult entertainment industry), the WPC billed itself as the first-ever academic conference on pornography. It was not, however, the first academic conference of its kind. The center had already sponsored conferences on transgenderism and prostitution, and other conferences at New York University, the State University of New York and the University of California at Santa Cruz have covered similar ground.

In fact, for many of the performers on stage, putting an academic spin on pornography and "sex work" is relatively old hat. As "people with brains who happen to like sex" ("liking sex" being the preferred euphemism here for making porn), these industry veterans -- articulate, subdued and clad in neat little suits -- have been a hot ticket on the lucrative campus lecture circuit for years. Acting as ambassadors of "sex-positive" feminist theory, they were careful to stress the kinder, gentler, downright uplifting side of the porn industry.

On the opening night of the conference, Candida Royalle, Femme Productions president, "couples market" pioneer and former actress, showed home movies of her Catholic childhood (Brownies, Girl Scouts, First Communion) and largely estranged family. Botero-esque stripper-cum-vocalist Candye Kane made affirming statements like, "Growing up, I never saw pictures of women who looked like me on the cover of Vogue, Elle or Cosmo. But I did see them on the cover of Juggs" (the porn industry apparently being a paragon of size acceptance). Sprinkle presented her "training video," a softly lit, mermaid-themed, Smashing Pumpkins-video of a porn movie (which starred a University of California student who had written asking for the opportunity to work with her) and freely dispensed tips for the novice director: "Now I want the cum shot. You can use condensed milk. It tastes really sweet when you lick it off." Later, in one of the panels, a "sex educator" who "works in the industry" enthused over Sprinkle's spermatic stage magic: "Now that's innovative!" and Sprinkle's already tremulous voice broke as she announced that her mother was in the house. "Do you want to come up here, mom?"

"Oh, no," came a thin voice from the audience. A fragile, gray-haired lady held up a piece of fabric like a white flag. "I've got my needlework."

By the end of the night I was so floored by the cheerful "sex-positivity," the galloping family values and the panoply of accomplishments on display (these were not just porn stars and strippers, don't you know, they were "nurse-educators," authors, directors, labor organizers, AIDS activists and youth counselors) that, having never considered a career in "the industry" or really ever bought pornography myself, I began to wonder if I was some kind of a pervert.

Toward the end of the evening, Carol Queen (author, peep show dancer and the Cesar Chavez of sex workers) burst my bubble with an anecdote about a young couple who came into her booth one night. When the boy rudely attempted to persuade Queen to introduce her largest dildo into her rectal cavity, she replied that insufficient lubrication (only a smidgen left) would make this endeavor time-consuming and therefore prohibitively expensive. While the boy persisted, his horrified girlfriend averted her eyes. Frustrated, Queen deftly switched into "sex-educator" mode and proceeded, in a frighteningly schoolmarmish tone, to lecture the girl on the boy's anal fixation and on her responsibility, as his girlfriend, in the matter. Then she called security. (I felt sorry for the girl in the story. It was her 18th birthday, after all. She had probably just wanted to see a band.)

The anecdote encapsulated the recurrent themes of the conference as they would unfurl over the next four days. First, that it was the girlfriend who had the problem (her fear of witnessing Queen in the act of love with a latex billy club being decidedly unhealthy). Second, that her problem could have been easily remedied by accepting porn into her life (its rejection having caused the problem in the first place). And third, that the porn industry is really only here to help.

Film and gender theory has taken some tortuous turns in the past decade, but judging from the WPC academic contingent's hearty endorsement of Queen et. al.'s porn puritanism, it may have finally hit a wall. Since feminist film theorists such as Linda Williams and Laura Mulvey (whose seminal 1973 "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema" launched a thousand dissertations on "fetishistic scopophilia") first postulated the idea of the personal as political, films of every stripe have been dismantled and scrutinized until every last trace of "woman as icon, displayed for the gaze and enjoyment of men" (as Williams wrote in "Film Body: An Implantation of Perversions") was revealed and duly denounced on campuses nationwide.

In many ways, the ideas presented at the WPC were the ironic but logical extension of an academic trend that has increasingly taken the once-subversive notion of the personal as political as dogma. The study of sexual identity as politics has influenced other disciplines, and has profoundly altered the way in which the humanities are taught. As anyone who has received a liberal arts education in the past 15 years can attest, academics have become increasingly influenced by the edges of pop culture, while pop culture has continued to plumb the fringes of counterculture. This has resulted in an obsession with keeping up with the underground within a certain sector of academia, which no longer seems to distinguish between scholarly inquiry and enthusiastic endorsement.

Williams, perhaps the only noted theorist at the WPC, has long since changed her stance on the matter. In the introduction of her 1989 book, "Hard Core: Power, Pleasure, and the Frenzy of the Visible," she writes, "I assumed that film pornography would (illustrate) a total objectification of the female 'film body' as object of male desire. I was wrong."

As sex-positive feminist Susie Bright and proto-feminist bjte noire Camille Paglia (who was quite popular among the porn stars and grad-student-cum-porn-starlets I met at the WPC) grew in notoriety, outraged lectures on the fetishized portrayal of Marlene Dietrich in the films of Joseph Von Sternberg (discussions of Dietrich's on-screen "oppression") gradually gave way to discussions of Sprinkle et. al.'s on-screen "empowerment." The old guard all but went underground as its hip and trendy status was revoked by the cultural intelligentsia-in-training. But just as Mulvey and pre-conversion Williams eschewed a dialectical approach in favor of an unyielding, generalized political stance, so have many current theorists thrown the baby out with the bath water. As Jean Baudrillard writes in "Fatal Strategies": "The widely accepted obviousness of a generalization of this order -- political, cultural, social, sexual, psychological -- marks its death sentence."

By noon of the first day of the conference, it had become clear that the academics at the WPC were in the throes of a widely accepted obviousness of another, opposite generalization -- one just as narrow and hostile to dissent.

"I don't even know what a victim is!" snorted Betty Dodson, Ph.D., and author of the 1974 self-published classic "Liberating Masturbation."

The panel I was attending, "Women and Pornography: Victims or Visionaries?" was hosted by an impressive bevy of sex-positive feminist porn producers, each with a line of New Age, "visionary porn" products to promote. Sprinkle and Royalle were joined by fellow visionaries Veronica Hart, Nina Hartley and Juli Ashton, all at the forefront of the "watch my video, it's good for you" school of porn. Speaking of pornography's role in spicing up the sex life of middle-aged couples, Hartley has said, "It's no different than [sic] Hamburger Helper."

Very little credence was given to sex unaided by technology (the hamburger without the helper) in the alternative universe of the WPC -- where enlightened porn star and devoted wanker were unanimously voted cutest couple. In this world, it's sex without the mediating factor of porn (with bodyguards, condensed milk and monthly HIV tests) that's dangerous.

"The answer to bad pornography is not no pornography, it's better pornography!" chirped Sprinkle. "If you don't like the stuff that's out there, make your own!" urged Royalle. "Porn been beddy, beddy good to me!" quipped Hart. All but one of them venerated '70s icons, they claim that the industry has provided them a "safe place" in which to "explore and own" their sexuality. But if at first this looks like a new brand of feel-good female solidarity, it's not. Some panelists imply that it is women outside the industry, not within it, who not only suffer but perpetuate hostility between the sexes.

"You've got them so scared sexually that they're mad!" says Nina Hartley, apparently directing herself at the non-pro females in the audience. "They can't get laid! They can't get blow jobs! They can't cum! That's why you're seeing more of these videos of women getting dragged on their faces, and spit on, and having their heads dunked in the toilet. Men are mad!" A male fan in the audience nodded his head in vigorous agreement (the middle-aged fans had come out in droves). "Men love and care about their favorite porn stars, because the women they know hate sex!"

- - - - - - - - - -

This outburst aside, most panelists emphasized the positive, painting a vision of a porn-friendly utopia. If sex in our culture were not so "steeped in shame and guilt," they argued, and if the sex and pornography industries were not marginalized and demonized by the mainstream, then pornography would cease to reflect harmful attitudes, rear its head out of the gutter and provide, as one of the panelists put it, "masturbatory catharsis for the masses."

"That stuff is bullshit," retorts Glasgow Phillips, an author and critic who has written extensively about the industry, after I describe to him the rosy, sex-positive, feminist image of pornography presented at the WPC. "To make money in this business you have to exploit," he says, "and it's so easy to do. I mean, you are aware of how many dumb sluts there are in this town? You just cast them.

"This is my own personal theory, but I think it's true," he continues. "With the advent of porn being 'cool' and 'OK' it's getting easier and easier to get girls to do it."

Judging by the number of student-slash-adult film actresses I met at the WPC, it's clearly becoming easier to get college students to do it. Some gender studies departments have added school credit to the list of incentives for participating in porn films. Annabel Chong, a USC fine art and gender studies major, who attended the WPC, had sex with two women and two dildos in class for credit. Chong entered the industry "in part out of personal curiosity, and in part as a reaction to the anti-porn feminist theory she was reading at school." In 1995, her field studies reached a climax, when she broke the record for having sex with the most men -- 251 -- in the first installment of the World's Biggest Anal Gang Bang series. "I was in class the next day!" she told me. Her record has been broken twice since, but she has been offered her own line of videos and is now seriously considering a career in the industry.

As self-aware and "empowered" as a performer like Chong may be, it's hard to imagine her ideology having a profound effect on the industry at large. Ironically, ideological incentives may be helping to draft fresh talent into an industry in which it has become increasingly difficult to become a star in the full economic sense of the word, and in which even the stars feel cheated.

"I'm on TV twice a month live, and I can't get a Hollywood agent," complains adult film star and Playboy call-in show host Juli Ashton. "I need a Hollywood agent and I can't get one!" Nina Hartley joins in. "Absolutely. They jack off to us on Saturday and don't know our names on Monday. I have lots of famous people who are fans of mine. I've met some of them face to face, absolutely, and I've even fucked a couple of them. But they don't take me out in public."

According to Phillips, porn's current trendy status helps keep the adult entertainment industry from sharing the wealth with its talent. "Instead of it being, 'you'll make money, you'll be a star,' it's just, 'you'll be cool,'" Phillips says. "But they're just meat, they're interchangeable."

While 20 years ago, only a few hundred adult entertainment titles were released each year, Adult Video News estimates that 8,000 videos were released last year alone. Whereas in her acting heyday Candida Royalle made perhaps five films a year, a girl acting in porn today can make up to 15 videos a month, schedule permitting. In a market dominated by barely legal "fresh faces," overexposure is a problem and career longevity is rare.

Yet performers like Chong feel confident that this doesn't have to be the case, "as evidenced by the success of Candida Royalle and Veronica Hart." Besides, she adds, "People burn out and disappear in every industry."

Matt, an employee of Leisure Time Entertainment (one of the biggest distributors of adult entertainment in the world), disagrees. He believes drugs are more prevalent in the industry now than they ever were, because "how can a girl justify doing this stuff all the time without being high?"

"In the '70s, people didn't do a lot of anal sex, and D.P. [double penetration] is a relatively new thing," he says. "Gangbang films are very popular now. It's all about objectification."

Although Sprinkle et. al. admit to some ambivalence about their experiences (two out of three claim to have retired as actresses upon becoming angry, bitter or depressed,) and concede that some of the material that's out there "offends" them, they continue to defend pornography as a viable career choice. Royalle estimates the "alternative" or "visionary" genre makes up about 3 percent of the pornographic material on the market but also declares, "A larger percentage want what we do."

"If the majority of the people wanted it, they'd have it," Matt retorts upon hearing this assertion. "You can always tell what people want by the stuff they make themselves."

The stuff people make themselves, also known as "pro-am" (professional guy, amateur girl), or "Gonzo" porn, is immensely popular. As engendered by such luminaries as Max Hardcore (director Paul Little, aka Max Steiner), John ("Buttman") Stagliano, Ed Powers and Seymour Butts, the genre dispenses with narrative altogether and features the director having sex with a young, unknown amateur.

Max [Hardcore] and Rob Black [another of the industry's most notorious and infamous directors] sell phenomenally," Matt explains. When asked if by amateur he means the girls don't get paid, he adds, "Oh they get paid, but they'd probably make more working at Denny's. They just don't want to put in the 40 hours."

"Max's stuff is little girls who look about 14," says Phillips. "He makes them eat cum out of each other's assholes. He's really big on the clear plastic speculum in asshole cranked wide open -- super unsafe, super gnarly stuff."

Matt concurs. "And he's incredibly verbally abusive, and he always finishes with an aberrant sexual act. I mean, Max uses stuff that has no place being in anyone's body. A lot of people copy Max now."

Max Hardcore's formula rarely varies. In the video I rented, the first girl, giggling, pony-tailed and with a mouth full of braces, is repeatedly asked to "say hi to mom," while Max perpetrates several highly distasteful acts. (As Adult Video News publisher Paul Fishbein put it, "When she says 'Ouch,' he says, 'Good.'") Of a girl he picks up at an arcade and takes to a hotel room, Max remarks, "Look at this stupid slut. No morals whatsoever. If she's dumb enough to let this happen to her, then I'm gonna do it." Max begins and ends each video with a disclaimer, urging viewers "not to try this at home," and to use condoms (which he does not). He also warns us to "be careful out there," because "women rule the world."

"The idea that we would sponsor a conference on, say, serial killers, doesn't mean that we are endorsing serial killers. It means our job is to gain insight and understanding into the phenomena that affect human behavior," Dr. James Elias, conference organizer and director of the Center for Sex Research at California State University, Northridge, told the Associated Press.

By the second day of the conference, I was beginning to wonder about "the phenomena" affecting the behavior of the participants at the WPC. In the press release, Dr. Elias (who failed to appear for an interview and later ignored repeated calls) had stated that "the industry will talk about [pornography] in terms of freedom of expression, and academics will talk about it in terms of effects." But debate was conspicuously absent from the conference, as were opposing viewpoints and diverse opinions.

Reed Lee, a First Amendment rights lawyer who I met at the panel "Effects: Pornography and the Individual Response," agreed. Describing another conference he had attended at the University of Chicago that supported the MacKinnon-Dworkin anti-porn perspective, he said:

"In a lot of ways, that conference was an interesting mirror of this one. There'd be the academics talking about the correlations they got out of somebody's study, and then there'd be the activist who stood up and denounced Calvin Klein ads as pornography. We see some of the same things at this conference. One-sidedness, and a hostility to some dissenting opinions."

The WPC program stated that "efforts to secure participants from the anti-pornography side was met with refusal and prior commitments [sic]." But if the conference had the feel of a PR event concocted by the adult entertainment industry, perhaps that's because, in many ways, it was. The articulate, feminist little sister of the porn industry held court, while her huge, retarded older brother masturbated poolside somewhere in the Valley.

At the heart of the conference seemed to be an effort to redefine porn according to a newer, prudified standard (or to redefine academia according to a low-brow, propagandist standard, I wasn't sure which). The panels seemed designed and chosen to diffuse controversy, not address it. "Ancient Greek Pornography: The Erotic Vases," "French Libertine Engravings from the Eighteenth Century," "Victorian Pornography," "Cum Shots: History, Theory and Research" and "My Buddha, My Love Guide: Kundalini Handballing in the New Age Sex Underground" were among the papers presented.

The few WPC panels that focused on the effects of pornography refrained from presenting any negative studies, but devoted considerable attention to discrediting any such studies. One panel, "Effects: The Question of Pornography and Sex Offenders," featured a paper rather emphatically titled, "There Is No Relationship Between Pornography and Violence Against Anyone or Anything." (It was indirectly implied, however, that there may be one between violence and books by famous English novelists. As it turns out, many sex offenders keep a copy of John Fowles' "The Collector" on their shelves. "It's in all the police manuals," one of the panelists explained. "All the warrants use it.")

A second panel on the effects of pornography featured Nina Hartley talking about "Using Pornography to Heal the Mind/Body Split"; and sex surrogate Vena Blanchard discussing the role it can play in the lives of sexually dysfunctional men. (The fact that the adult entertainment industry generates an estimated 5 to 8 billion dollars annually may help dispel the notion that its uses and effects are limited to the clinical. Unless, of course, a disproportionate number of porn consumers are suffering from a painful and serious-sounding "mind-body split.")

The final panel on effects advertised three papers, "Pornography as a Research Tool: Exploring Fundamental Issues in Human Sexuality," by William Griffitt, Ph.D.; "The Effects of Exposure to Erotic Videos on Sexual Behavior: Frequency Estimates and Judgments About Sexual Scenarios," by Johnny Dossett, Ph.D.; and "The Effects of Violent Pornography and Male Attractiveness on Females' Hostility, Depression and Anxiety," by Shirley Elan.

I was followed into this lecture by a self-described sex therapist who had earlier approached me with a cute "Did you hear? The stuff on Monica's dress was clam chowder, but we're gonna find that clam!" As the first speaker began his lecture, the therapist leaned in to me and whispered: "Listen, if this thing goes through," I had no idea what he was talking about, "I want to get some archival photos of who met who where. So why don't you write your name and number right here." I declined, politely. "Paranoid!" he hissed, and spent the next 10 minutes fidgeting and snorting in my ear. The first speaker dashed through a presentation on how there "appeared to be differences in the responses of men and women to explicit material." The other two scheduled speakers failed to appear.

I managed to track down Shirley Elan a few weeks after the conference. Currently an undergraduate at Cal State Northridge, her study had sought to determine whether the level of attractiveness of male actors in violent rape scenes had any effect on female viewers. Invited by Dr. Elias to present her unpublished paper, Elan accepted and e-mailed him requesting further information on the conference, including dates and location, but he failed to respond. She was disappointed until she saw the local news coverage on the WPC. "I'm a research person. I don't drink martinis," she said.

Given that unsafe sex and drug abuse are common in the industry, one of the WPC's more striking omissions was that, out of 58 panels, only one of them featured a paper on AIDS (curtly titled "HIV Testing"). Of only two panels on gay porn, none focused on AIDS. Instead, the subjects chosen for discussion ranged from "Australian Gay Porn Videos and the National Identity of Culturally Despised Objects" to "Gay Porn for a Specific Audience: Mature and Uncut Men."

Allenina, a 24-year-old transgender porn actress and art student who attended the panel on Gonzo Porn, described John Stagliano's popular "Buttman Series" as "cinema vérité: no plot, all sex." Stagliano's academic pursuits ("He's very interested in the female butt") overshadowed other issues of possible concern. His recently disclosed HIV positive status was not mentioned.

"The way that pornography has been represented in the press has been consistently negative, and the conference offered a different perspective on that. But I think at the same time, that they went too far," said Chong. (Incidentally, one of the actresses who broke Chong's 251 record, Brooke Ashley, recently went public with the claim that she contracted the HIV virus while on the set of World's Biggest Anal Gang Bang 3. She also claims to have received incomplete payment for her work, and may be suing the video's producers.)

"The issue of AIDS," Chong said, "was side stepped and glossed over. Geoffrey Karen Dior mentioned her HIV status. But I was disappointed that John Stagliano didn't."

Her overall opinion of the conference was that it was "like a high school reunion, just a chance for a bunch of academics to get drunk and get laid."

Allenina concluded that "the purpose of the conference was to somehow make the porn industry sound intelligent, or to present it in an academic way. I think it achieved that quite adequately." But to gain insight on the issue, or hear diverse perspectives? "I think I would read a book, or attend a less social event."

As academics have increasingly taken their cues from the culture of celebrity, the academic environment has spawned its own "stars," complete with entourages, fans, "bad behavior" and sold-out performances. Yet pop stars are in the clearly defined and lucrative business of promoting a hip image and "subversive" persona designed to separate them from the glut of "individuals" in their pre-fab constellations. This begs the question, what business are today's cultural scholars in?

Luke Ford, whom Feed Magazine has called the "Matt Drudge of Porn," describes a scene from one of the closing panels in his Web site:

Sunday, 8/9/98, 10:40 AM. Ballsy Weekly Standard journalist Matt Balash interviews conference co-chair Dr. Vern Bullough about yesterday's child pornography presentation which included photos of a boy holding the photographer's cock (from the presentation by David Sonenschein).

Dr. Bullough thought it was OK as long as the photographer was a professional and had obtained permission from the parents. Dr. Bullough related how his kids used to pull on his schwong in the shower. Matt asked if Dr. Bullough invited other children into the shower to pull on his schwong. A conference organizer, hospitality lawyer (Mark Roysner) stepped in to reprove Matt for asking inappropriate questions. Matt's dying to know how many profs scored with porn stars this weekend.

Mark Roysner: "This has been a scholarly endeavor ... People's [sexual] relations are not an issue."

Matt: "Did you see the live sex? Same room where you held panels."

Mark: "What people care to do on their own time is none of our business."

Matt to Mark: "Do you like porn?"

Mark: "I don't think that's a relevant question. I'm a big believer in the First Amendment ..."

Matt: "How do you know that nobody scored with porn stars?"

Mark: "I'm not interested in whether anyone scored ..."

In "Fatal Strategies" Jean Baudrillard writes, "When everything is political, it is the end of the political as destiny; it is the beginning of the political as culture, and means the immediate impoverishment of this political culture. When everything becomes cultural, it is the end of culture as destiny; it is the beginning of culture as politics, and means the immediate impoverishment of this cultural politics. The same is true for the social, for history, economy, and sex. We thought we discovered something subversive when we affirmed that the body, sports and fashion were political. We have only precipitated their indifferentiation into an analytical and ideological fog."

Traditional scholarship can't flourish in a political environment, because politics are, by nature and necessity, partisan and driven by agenda. But scholarship in the '90s has increasingly given way to "consciousness-raising" and "celebration" -- and thus we arrive at the World Porn Conference, where actor/producer Mike Horner felt moved to gratitude by the hearty bear hug given the industry by academia. "Thank you," he emoted to the assembled academics at the closing session, "for helping us become more of the mainstream."

By Carina Chocano

Carina Chocano writes about TV for Salon. She is the author of "Do You Love Me or Am I Just Paranoid?" (Villard).

MORE FROM Carina Chocano

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Academia Books Camille Paglia College